On the bright side, maybe “The Spy Next Door” will serve as some sort of gateway drug, introducing young viewers to the narcotic highs of watching Jackie Chan in older, better movies, the ones where he did his own stunts and didn’t have to rescue kittens off roofs. It’s a learning opportunity: “You know, kids, the man who played Bob used to jump onto helicopters and rollerskate under moving semi trucks. Don’t you think that’s much, much, much cooler than seeing him hanging out with Hannah Montana’s dad?”
Yes. Yes it is. And in case you weren’t sure, “The Spy Next Door” is kind enough to open with plenty of footage from Chan’s past hits, all that great stunt work and comic mugging reminding us why we fell in love with the guy. Then the movie proper begins, and he’s thrown into the sort of family comedy where the producers thought it would be great if the family had a pet pig. You know, just like in “College Road Trip.”
Oh, and the director is Brian Levant, who previously helmed “Are We There Yet?” and “Snow Dogs” and “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas” and “Jingle All the Way” and by this point I assume you’re punching yourself in the eye to keep you from seeing the rest of the list. (He also co-wrote the “Leave It to Beaver” movie and produced “Problem Child 3.” You’re welcome.) The script comes to us from Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, the writing team behind “Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector,” with a re-write credited to Gregory Poirer, whom you may remember from “See Spot Run,” “Tomcats,” and “A Sound of Thunder.” The producer is Robert Simonds, the brain behind “”The Pink Panther 2,” “Rebound,” and “Corky Romano.”
How could this not be Jackie Chan’s best career move?
The movie is, understandably, an incompetence pile. What a mess this is; there are moments where flubbed lines make it into the final cut, and one wonders, how? Sure, I can understand the sloppy editing and bad writing and awful performances, but why would any professional opt to include fixable errors? Were the filmmakers happy with such mistakes? Or was there a point where they threw their arms up in unison and said, “Just eff it all. It’s not worth the effort”?
(In one scene, a kid actor forgets his line, then says it a few seconds later. Why not just cut the shot before he says the non-vital line?)
There are three child actors here, and while they are definitely children, I assume the “actor” label is merely honorary. (Even then, there are other young actors in this film that are even worse. It’s like watching an elementary school play.) They play the three children of Gillian (Amber Valletta), who somehow affords a high-scale suburban lifestyle while working, I think, as an abstract artist. She’s also inexplicably in love with her neighbor, Bob Ho (Chan), a nerdy Chinese pen salesman who barely speaks English and is old enough to be her father. Chan looks embarrassed to be anywhere near such a dopey concept, and Valletta doesn’t bother selling it, either. Even the script can’t convince itself: when Gillian’s asked to explain why she loves Bob, she mumbles something about how he’s a pleasant person.
As you can guess from the title, Bob is secretly a Chinese spy on loan to the CIA, helping track down a Russian terrorist (or something) who’s stolen a chemical (or something) that can destroy the world’s oil supply (or something). The villain is played by Magnús Scheving, better known to young viewers as “Sportacus” on the Nickelodeon weird-a-rama “Lazy Town.” As his sidekick, we have Katherine Boecher; the two lay it on thick with the Russian accents, so much so that Boris Badenov would tell them to take it down a notch.
The inexplicable plot finds one of Gillian’s idiot kids accidentally downloading a top secret file, which means the Russkies track them down, and Bob, who’s been asked to babysit while Gillian is out of town visiting her sick dad, must keep them from getting killed. Somewhere along the line, George Lopez and Billy Ray Cyrus show up.
It’s essentially Jackie Chan stunt pieces grafted onto “The Pacifier.” But Levant and his crew have no clue how to properly stage or edit Chan’s action moves, so all that’s gone to waste under bad editing and poor framing. (The cheap CG assist and occasional stuntman stand-in we can forgive, given Chan’s age. But how do you mess up pointing a camera at the star as he hits someone with a folding chair?) There were scenes – consider one set poolside, with Jackie using a ladder, a pool skimmer, and a hose to beat up his enemies – where it’s obvious Levant asked Chan for help. But even as a throwback to the better days of a younger Chan using everyday objects in a carefully choreographed fight sequence, Levant as a filmmaker can’t keep up, and the fun of it all collapses. (He’d rather give us cutaways of the little girl smiling than of Jackie doing some slick move.) As something along the lines of “My First Jackie Chan Movie,” this one’s a total failure.
It’s even worse as a family comedy. The writers throw multiple subplots at us and pray some of them stick. None do. We get: the older daughter, who’s pissed at everyone and wants to wear short skirts; the middle kid, a geeky computer whiz who’s desperate to be cool at school; the cutie-pie toddler who says things with a cutie-pie speech impediment. Bob, of course, will solve all these problems, minus the cutie-pie speech impediment. There are too many moments when the script strains to get serious, and in the straining, I think it threw its back out.
The rest is a series of tired old gags where the action hero has to make breakfast and almost sets the kitchen on fire, or where he keeps losing the little girl in the mall, or where he uses spy gadgets to help monitor the kids. The rest of the script is peppered with bizarre one-liners that no child would ever find funny, let alone understand, yuks about divorce and Jimmy Choo shoes and bootleg punk rock concerts from the 70s. If all of that sounds awful, please understand that the final product is even worse.
It’s enough to make you hanker for the subtle graces of “The Tuxedo.”